Young writers answer 'Why Save Money?'

Richard Leonard, Celia Mercier, Alayna Hutchinson and Bella Bennett: Photo by Keri McLeod
Bank president Richard Leonard stands with winners (from left) Celia Mercier, Alayna Hutchinson, and Bella Bennett. Photo by Keri McLeod

By Eleni Collins - June 22, 2006

Creativity was the winning element in the Fifth Annual Martha's Vineyard Cooperative Bank Essay Contest held for fifth, sixth, and seventh graders from all Island schools. The three winners were recognized June 1 at a reception in the lobby of the bank's West Tisbury branch.

The first prize, a $200 United States Savings Bond, was awarded to Alayna Hutchinson, 11, of Aquinnah. Second prize, a $100 savings bond, went to Bella Bennett, 11, of Chilmark. Both girls are fifth graders at the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School. The winner of the third prize was Celia Mercier, 12, of the Edgartown School.

The question the students had to answer in their essays was, "What does 'good credit' mean, how do you get it and how will it help you in your future?"

Richard Leonard, president of the Co-op Bank, introduced the winning essayists to the family members and teachers gathered in the lobby. "I was very impressed with the three different and interesting approaches," he said.

Alayna wrote her first-place essay in journal form, following a young girl from age seven, when she opens up a savings account with her mother, to age 19, when she takes out a loan to pay for college. At the end of each journal entry, Alayna included the "lesson" learned from the specific banking experience.

The final lesson incorporated all the journal entries: "Because Bobby did so many things to improve her credit - savings account, car loan, credit card - by the time she needed to take a huge loan out for something as important as an education, she has such a good credit report to fall back on."

The idea for her essay format came from a book she was reading in school. "I knew they were looking for something unique, something original," said Hutchinson. "I recently finished Anne Frank ("The Diary of Anne Frank"), so I decided to use that style."

"She expressed character, credit, and pulled them all together at the end. It was a very creative and fun approach," said Mr. Leonard.

Bella, the second place writer, also chose to feature a fictional character in her essay. From the point of view of Nicaraguan woman, Bella gave her opinion of how important good credit is for the lives of everyone in a family: "If I am late on my payment, the bank will still let me take out money but they will charge extra interest. That would be bad credit. I need to get good credit because when my children start school I might need to make my business bigger to pay for their school supplies," Bella's character muses.

Bella explained her grandfather told her to "think out of the box" when writing, and that helped her to come up with the character of a Nicaraguan chicken farmer.

Bella and Alayna's teacher, Amy Reece, attended the reception. "These girls write all the time, draft after draft, story after story after story. They are also publishing a book of courage essays to help their friend with cancer," she said. Despite their late-night work habits that keep them up until midnight some nights writing, they both produce winning results.

Celia used a different approach when writing her winning essay. She outlined the definition of "credit," and explained thoroughly the value of having good credit financially and personally. She went on to explain thoroughly the concept of interest in her essay: "An interest rate is an additional fee that banks add on to the money that you borrow. You can borrow this money but you also have to pay twenty percent of the money you borrow....This is how banks make money."

Also in her essay, Celia stressed that good credit and character are useful not only when doing banking. "Having a good character is important for getting a loan but it is also important for other things such as a job interview or something like that so you should always keep a good character."

"Celia wrote with such an honest perspective to the value of credit history," said Mr. Leonard, at the reception. "It's not always about the numbers. Credit is a statement of character, and she stressed who the person is and not only how they handle their credit."

The essay contest is part of a national program, "Teach Children to Save Day," in which teachers dedicate one day for students to learn the importance of starting their own savings accounts. Patti Leighton, Executive Assistant of the Martha's Vineyard Cooperative Bank, began the Island's unique program 10 years ago at the Oak Bluffs School, and later brought it to all the elementary schools.

"Different banks and schools teach a class about business and banking once a year," Ms. Leighton explained. "We choose to have an essay contest because we already have a school banking program throughout the school year."

The five judges for this event were Martha's Vineyard Regional High School Principal Peg Regan, high school English teachers Todd Sawyer and Christine Ferrone, Arlene Conroy, a retired assistant treasurer for the Co-op Bank, and Gary Cogley.

After the ceremony, Mr. Leonard gave the girls a tour of the bank's vault.

Eleni Collins who lives in Oak Bluffs is a May graduate of Boston University and a summer intern at The Times.